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When Final Fantasy XIV flopped back in 2010, you would have been forgiven for doubting that Square Enix could save it. But they did with 2013’s A Realm Reborn, thanks in large part to the efforts of producer and director Naoki Yoshida. When Heavensward, FFXIV’s first expansion after being rebooted, was released in 2015, you would have been forgiven for doubting that Square Enix could top the excellently crafted story, beautiful music, and engaging gameplay that massively improved just about every facet of A Realm Reborn. I myself was uncertain of whether they could reach, let alone raise, the bar set by Heavensward, especially after 2017’s Stormblood failed to do either. But with the release of the MMO’s third and latest expansion, they have done just that and more. Shadowbringers is not only the best FFXIV expansion, it is simply one of the best Final Fantasy stories out there today.
As with every FFXIV expansion, you play as the Warrior of Light, a mostly silent hero you can customize to your liking who has laid low many primals (think summons) and a few Ascians (think bad guys) in her quest to protect the land of Eorzea and its people. When we last saw our hero, she was feeling the strain of taking on the aggressive and expansionist Garlean Empire without the aid of her trusty companions, the Scions of the Seventh Dawn. Said companions have been spirited away by a mysterious stranger to another world known as the First, a land where light-aspected aether has grown too strong and vicious abominations known as Sin Eaters threaten to destroy all life. The Warrior of Light must travel to this world herself to find her friends and, quite contrary to her normal moniker, bring darkness back to the First in order to save it. If this sounds like a detour after the war and liberation-heavy tale in Stormblood, trust me, it’s not. We learned back in Heavensward that FFXIV’s universe is comprised of the Source (where the game has taken place up until now) and thirteen reflections or parallel worlds whose rejoining with the Source causes calamities. As a result, traveling to the First is directly related to the game’s overarching story, particularly that of the Ascians and their desire to summon Zodiark. Indeed, the nature and quantity of various lore bombs throughout the main scenario may very well make Shadowbringers the most important of FFXIV’s three expansions from a story perspective.
The tale told in Shadowbringers is, quite simply, fantastic from start to finish. It’s full of strong character moments, unexpected twists, and excellent capitalization of plot threads that have been dangling since as far back as A Realm Reborn. There’s a heartfelt quality to your interactions with several characters in particular that are sure to make you emotional, and the ramp up to the final trial is quite possibly some of the highest quality hype in the entire game. The stakes also become quite personal to the Warrior of Light (or rather, the Warrior of Darkness), a facet I appreciated very much during my playthrough. Your character has always been a part of the main story, of course, but this was one of the first times it felt like the story was about your character, at least in part. The pacing does suffer in a few places where the plot drags a little, but the overall high quality of the story makes up for this, and the bumps in the road don’t feel as egregious as the infamous ARR-slog or the moogle quests from Heavensward. In fact, the only nostalgia I felt while playing was the good kind — there are several early plot points that are clearly designed to harken back to your days as a fledgling adventurer, for example, and the whole story feels akin to a classic and timeless Final Fantasy quest in spirit.
The world of the First is both strikingly different from the Source and yet hauntingly familiar at the same time. You can easily see how the various areas relate to their counterparts on the Source — Amh Araeng is a desert region on the southern end of the continent, just like Thanalan, for example — but they really feel like distinct places that have evolved in different ways. There’s also a great use of color in several areas that highlights the fantasy feel of the First. Lakeland, for example, has an entire forest of purple trees, and Il Mheg features fields of bright and beautiful wildflowers. It is no exaggeration to say that I enjoyed almost every area I visited, particularly the Crystarium, which I think might be my favorite city hub in the entire game. You will, of course, encounter a lot of enemies as you explore the First, and while there is a nice variety, it’s worth noting that a lot of the assets are reused from existing monsters. This is unsurprising in a large MMO like FFXIV and can potentially be explained by lore, but it did take just a little of the wind out of my sails when some of the first enemies I encountered upon arriving looked just like the same foes I’ve seen time and time again. As for the people of the First, almost everyone you meet is sporting a new look, and while the clothes look snazzy, the texture issues and general expressive limitations of the models remain unchanged. Again, this is to be expected, but along with the asset reuse and FPS drops on PS4, it’s really the only little quibble I have with Shadowbringers’ visuals.
I have absolutely no quibbles whatsoever with Shadowbringers’ music, however. It is some of the best work Masayoshi Soken has put out for the game, and the man makes a lot of great music for FFXIV. As per tradition, the expansion’s excellent main theme — which is featured in the cinematic trailer — is referenced in a lot of places. From the Crystarium to emotional cutscenes, epic battles, and even some of the expansion’s trials, hearing the different parts of this theme used to varying effect is a real treat. And it’s not just the main theme; every area features unique music that is then arranged in new ways for the dungeons you explore along your journey. The very first dungeon is among my favorites from the expansion, for example, in large part because of its piano and rock-heavy accompaniment. Soken’s ability to establish a theme and then reshape it in multiple ways has always impressed me throughout the entirety of FFXIV’s six-year history, but with Shadowbringers, he has achieved a cohesive soundscape on par with (and arguably surpassing) his work for Heavensward. In fact, he managed to change my mind about the theme for one late-expansion area simply through his arrangements. I initially didn’t care for the theme in question, but when I reached a new part of the region, the music changed from an acoustic guitar carrying the main motif to a somber piano, and I was instantly hooked. This simple arrangement helped me to better appreciate the original version of the theme, and the absolutely epic version used in the area’s dungeon is a very big part of why I love that particular dungeon so much.
Speaking of dungeons, Shadowbringers has a good selection, and while I don’t care for all of them, I do feel that they are generally stronger than Stormblood’s initial smattering of excursions. For example, I already mentioned that the first dungeon has a killer soundtrack, but it also has a great setting: you work your way through a dangerous forest and wind up in a wide open field while a village burns in the background. It felt more connected to the story than past main scenario dungeons have, and while some of the other dungeons in this expansion are a little more traditional, the final story dungeon takes that concept and runs a marathon with it. I obviously can’t talk specifics (because it is highly spoilerific), but suffice it to say, this dungeon tells a story all its own, and it is a breathtaking experience. I highly recommend people use the new Trust system for their first time through this dungeon (more on Trusts in just a bit). Trials are also quite good this time around, and the two extreme variants provide a decent challenge while also keeping things relatively simple — as is usually the case at the beginning of an expansion. Titania, the trial announced prior to Shadowbringers’ launch, actually ended up being my least favorite of the three, not because it’s a bad fight but because the other trials are simply pretty strong from both a narrative and musical perspective.
Two weeks after the launch of Shadowbringers, Square Enix added the first tier of the new eight-man raid series, Eden. Longtime Final Fantasy fans will recognize Eden as one of the Guardian Forces from Final Fantasy VIII, and there are a few little nods to that game thrown in that people are sure to enjoy. The story this time around is directly linked to the main scenario, which is a much appreciated change after Heavensward’s Alexander and Stormblood’s Omega were treated mostly as side stories. And just like the Shadowbringers’ main scenario, it looks like the Eden raids may very well provide their own lore bombs; this first tier ends with quite a surprise that may have significant implications going forward. The fights themselves are a lot of fun, with some interesting mechanics and a decent challenge even for the normal difficulty. I’m eager to see what awaits us in the savage versions, which will be unlocked at the end of the month.
Aside from new areas, dungeons, and trials, the things that people tend to look forward to the most with new expansions are new playable races and new jobs. With regard to the former, Shadowbringers introduces the female-only Viera (a bunny-like race first seen in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance) and the male-only Hrothgar (giant, buff cat people that resemble FFX’s Ronso). It’s easy to see the appeal of these new races, and I understand why they’re gender locked from a resource management perspective, but I am nonetheless a little disappointed that Square Enix has returned to a practice they abandoned after rebooting FFXIV. As for new jobs, there are two of them: Gunbreaker (tank) and Dancer (DPS). The former is an interesting combination of a defensive tank like a Paladin with some DPS flair thrown in for good measure. Gunbreakers can shield and slightly recover the HP of themselves or a party member, but they also imbue cartridges in the barrel of their weapons with charges they can expend to perform powerful combos. Dancers are a support-minded job that…well, dance to confer damage buffs to either a chosen party member or everyone within range. They wield chakrams that they throw at enemies with lightning speed, and their personal DPS rotation is fast and fluid, featuring a cascading series of procced skills. Of the two, I think I personally enjoy Dancer more — it’s a lot of fun to play and its kit just feels good to use — but I also mostly level healers and a few DPS, so my familiarity and appreciation of tanks is admittedly somewhat lacking. Speaking of healers, it is a shame we didn’t get a new one in Shadowbringers to round out the new jobs, but Yoshida and his team have been quite clear that they felt they needed to make changes to the role before they could introduce anything new.
And boy, have there been some changes. As is to be expected from an expansion, every existing job has seen some level of modification or rework. For some, like White Mage and Warrior, the changes are minor and the jobs play similarly to how they did before. Other jobs, like Machinist, have seen a near top-to-bottom revamp and play very differently than how you might remember them. The changes don’t just stop at individual jobs, though. All tanks now have a single stance that they use to generate enmity, and every attack used while in that stance builds up hate. This makes it easy to grab and hold the attention of enemies without having to dance between tank and DPS stances or waste time on combos just to maintain aggro. The defensive spell Protect is gone and enemies hit harder in Shadowbringers, so healers often have to spend more time recovering HP than they did in past expansions. Then there are system-wide changes, like the removal of TP and the new flat cap on MP of 10,000. Of course, not everyone will be happy with some of these changes; Astrologian, in particular, is in a pretty rough state at the moment. But future patches will include adjustments, so a lot of the kinks should get ironed out.
One of the biggest changes in Shadowbringers is the addition of the Trust system. Instead of running a main scenario dungeon with other players, you have the option of running it with the NPC companions who accompany you throughout the story. Each NPC available to you specializes in a different job, so no matter what role you choose to play, you can form a standard four-man party. Trusts are generally reliable when it comes to boss mechanics, but they don’t use AOE attacks, so dungeon runs will take longer than if you partner up with other players. What’s cool about Trusts, though, is that the characters you choose all have different things to say about the dungeons you run, and they have individual little quirks when it comes to how they play. I used Trusts for my initial run of every available dungeon, and I really feel like it enhanced my experience of the story. Ever since Heavensward, the main story has generally featured the Warrior of Light traveling with companions, akin to your standard Final Fantasy party. Shadowbringers is no different in this respect, and now you can complete story dungeons with those companions, which helps further solidify their role in the main scenario and enhances the “single-player RPG story in an MMO” feel that FFXIV has had for a long time now. It was also helpful to run the dungeons for the first time with Trusts so I could take time to appreciate the scenery and learn boss mechanics without worrying about screwing up in front of other people. One potential downside to Trusts, however, is that while they are synced to the various dungeon levels as you work your way through the main scenario, they are reduced to level 71 once you finish the story, and you must grind your way through multiple runs of each dungeon to get them back up to the new level cap of 80. This does make them useful for leveling multiple jobs, though, particularly DPS jobs that usually have long queue times.
Finally, another big change is the removal of individual job quests for both battle classes and crafters and gatherers. The former now have role quests, which are comprised of tank, healer, physical DPS, and magical DPS. You can use any job that fits into a particular role to complete the quests in that line, as long as it is at the appropriate level. While there are far fewer quests to complete as a result, the stories of these role quests are quite interesting; each quest line deals with a member of the original Warriors of Darkness that we met back in patch 3.4. With the exception of Ardbert, the Warriors of Darkness really didn’t get much development during that particular patch, so the role quests are a fantastic way to learn more about them. If the loss of individual job quests saddens you, there are capstone quests for every job you level to 80, provided you complete both the main story and their respective role quests. Similar to the battle classes, gatherers and crafters are grouped together into different facets. Each facet quest line tasks you with the delivery of various items, and the process works essentially the same as existing custom deliveries — once you’ve delivered enough items, the person you’re working with holds you in higher esteem and you can turn in more goodies (and get little story snippets while you’re at it). Consolidating quests like this may feel like a bit of a downgrade, but considering the sheer number of jobs available now (and the fact that all the quest givers are still on the Source), it seems like a fair compromise.
I’ve often said that Final Fantasy XIV is one of my favorite entries in the series. With the release of Shadowbringers, I am amending that statement. Final Fantasy XIV is my favorite entry in the series. In so many ways, Shadowbringers is the full Final Fantasy package. It has a hero’s story with adventure and intrigue, a strong cast of characters that journey by your side, a lovely world to explore, beautiful music to listen to, and of course, dangerous foes to slay. Two decades ago as a single-player RPG, this kind of experience would have been the norm for Square Enix. As it stands, Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers continues to show every Final Fantasy released this century, and many other RPGs besides, how it’s done.